Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Letter of Comment on “Hanging Out Along the Aqueduct”

This came in the morning’s email, in response to my first “Hanging Out Along the Aqueduct” column (published in the Aqueduct Gazette, which can be downloaded gratis from Aqueduct’s site):

Dear Timmi,

I just discovered the blog and newsletter this weekend, so it's taken me a few days to catch up and I hope I'm not too late to join the discussion. I wanted to respond to your article in the Gazette. A couple of things struck me. First was your response to your intense reader's assertion that she knew you better through your writing than you could ever know her. I'll quote you here:

"... I realized that it was an imagined relationship, constructed inside the reader's head ..."

And from the other side, you said about meeting authors that you thought you knew from reading their work:

"I have a more realistic attitude toward texts (knowing, that is, that they don't convey the quintessence of their author's personalities.)"

Is it possible that your reader really did know you better than you could ever know her? Is it also possible that texts could do a better job of conveying an author's personality than a face to face meeting?

I think of fiction as the safe place to explore the darker, or perhaps even just not polite, aspects of my personality. I suspect there are parts of myself that make it into my work that I am not consciously aware of, and in this regard, I tend to think of my writing as a more complete revelation of my personality than I could manage in person. This is what makes the reader/author relationship so uncomfortable. I also realize, from both sides of the equation, that the reader will bring her own interpretation to the work. I don't think that this then equals an "imagined relationship." Even among my friends, I know that they see me differently from the way that I see myself, and that the reverse is also true.

One other comment: when reading a book I feel a strong connection with, I'm identifying with the author and not the plot or character. I'm always thinking of what it took to write such a thing and not imagining myself in similar situations as the characters. Does anyone else have such a "writer-centric" relationship to books they love?

Thanks for this forum, Timmi.



Dear Kimberly,

You raise some interesting points. First, I agree that the reader doesn’t have an “imagined relationship,” at least not in the sense you’re thinking of. I worried about what word to use there because I knew that “imagined” could (and probably would) be read as “imaginary.” I briefly considered “imaginal,” but that’s a word that means “Of, relating to, or having the form of an insect imago.” And “imaginative” seemed too close to “imaginary.” Briefly I considered “conceptual,” but decided that was too narrow to include all that I needed it to. Finally, studying the definitions of “imagine,” I concluded that at least one of the definitions could cover the sense I wanted to convey. Unfortunately, it is misleading. What I intended to suggest was a relationship that is carried on within the imagination of the reader. You see, by the time the text gets into the hands of the reader, the writer is no longer there. That is to say, the text is a mere trace of the writer that has a life (or not) of its own, independent of the writer. The writer may, of course, attempt to influence how others interpret the text but in the end is only one more interpretive voice where the text is concerned. The reader’s creation of an abstract notion of the writer is just that: a creation. The text may supply the reader with the materials to do so, but just as most people understand what they read very, very differently, so they will construct their own peculiar notion of the writer within their imaginations. It’s the writer’s texts the reader interacts with, not the writer. (Of course if they have interact with the writer personally in some way, it becomes another matter.)

You ask: “Is it possible that your reader really did know you better than you could ever know her? Is it also possible that texts could do a better job of conveying an author's personality than a face-to-face meeting?” And then you point out that for many writers, fiction is a “safe place to to explore the darker, or perhaps even just not polite, aspects of my personality. I suspect there are parts of myself that make it into my work that I am not consciously aware of, and in this regard, I tend to think of my writing as a more complete revelation of my personality than I could manage in person.”

While it is true that the best writingparticularly fiction writing—will be filled with the writer’s “tells” and will, moreover, display the sheer range of their imagination more blatantly than other sorts of activities might do (though there again, certain games and discussions of books, politics, and movies may do this just as effectively), an astute observer and listener can probably pick up some of the same things from their friends over the course of a long association. More importantly, though, the display of imagination, while shining a spotlight on the more occult aspects of a personality, only illuminates a very small area of it, which does not, in my mind, add up to “knowing” that person. Similarly, watching someone become temporarily insane (descending into terror or the first shock of grief, being overwhelmed with intolerable pain, or losing their temper on a grand scale, to take a few ordinary examples) will shine a spotlight on an aspect of their personality that may be raw and true, but again, that aspect is simply one part of the personality. Granted, you can’t really “know” someone until you’ve seen them lose it at a moment of tremendous stress, but though such “knowing” will add a certain depth to your image of tem, it won’t give you access to the real personality.

As for doing a better job of conveying an author’s personality than a face-to-face meeting, I don’t think it’s so simple. Frequently when I meet someone face-to-face for the first time, I have an experience similar to the one I had when I gave a colloquium talk at a major university a few years ago. Before the talk began, I circulated among the audience members who were munching on fruit, chocolate, and cheese. (This being my first public-speaking gig in an academic setting, I was too nervous to eat.) One of the faculty members attending, who I’d been aware had been watching me for a few minutes as I talked with others, approached me and introduced herself. She made it clear she was both taken aback and disconcerted by my failure to match her expectations. “You’re not at all what I expected! Because you know, I read every essay and piece of fiction on your website,” she said. “So I was sure I knew what you’d be like in person. But you’re so…small…and soft-spoken, and…gentle in your manner. I just can’t get over it!” I wanted to respond, “Sorry to disappoint you.” Or, “What did you expect, someone six feet-ten who pumps iron and eats nails every morning for breakfast?” But of course I didn’t—because I’d had this experience so many times before. The first few times this happened to me, I was dismayed. But later, I found it a little flattering to think that people who hadn’t met me thought from my style of writing that I was someone they hoped they’d never tangle with. But to return to your question. Applied to this disparity between the images my writing conjures up in readers’ minds and the image my physical appearance, body language, and voice conjure up in a face-to-face interlocutor’s mind, you would seem to be asking: which is the true image of my personality? And my answer would be: neither. Such images are always partial and incomplete.

As for your last question: I hope others (besides me) will offer responses to it. I would say that for myself, when I love a book, I have two kinds of responses to it (that I find complementary, though I’m not sure many other people would). The first is aesthetic: I’m transported to a textured state of mind that I carry around inside me for as long as I’m reading it. This is above all an effect of language, and one that seems utterly magical when I think about it. How does it happen? I suppose it involves a certain sort of textual synergy in which many elements come together with such power and coherence that one is transported into an altered state, and because one is transported, one feels the reality of the book’s imaginary. By this I don’t mean simply that the characters seem “real” or the details of the setting plausible. I mean the imaginative logic underlying the work’s voice and style and, perhaps more intangibly, its choice of detail, syntactical preferences, rhythm of the sentences, and formal structure, all of which combine perfectly to create feelings and perceptions and sensations and thoughts that constitute a place we would never have been able to visit on our own. The second response is analytical: I need to figure out how it’s put together, to elucidate all of its many relationsformal, thematic, as well as affective—and figure out how all these work to transport me into that wonderful textured state of mind that belongs uniquely to that book. Of course I don’t always have both responses to the books I love. But this is not, I think, a writer-centric response.

Thanks very much for your comment, Kimberly. This is exactly the kind of conversation we’re looking for here.

Direct your letters of comment to conversation@aqueductpress.com. If you do, we'll enter you in our drawing for an Aqueduct book of the winner's choice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Timmi, thanks for your lengthy response. In reply to your last comments -- yes, the aesthetic experience of a book is tantamont to love for me. I did not think to describe it. You did a marvelous job of it. Without that transportive quality, there's no reason to think of the author's achievement. At least not for me. I hope others will give their opinions on this.